Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.50

Wiebke Denecke, Classical World Literatures: Sino-Japanese and Greco-Roman Comparisons.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xi, 347.  ISBN 9780199971848.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Fritz-Heiner Mutschler, Technische Universität Dresden; Peking University (


This is an extraordinary book. Undoubtedly the first of its kind, it opens up a new field of research and it does so in a way that allows both the enormous difficulties and the possible rewards of the endeavour to come to the fore. The book compares the literary cultures of Rome and Japan, each of which builds upon and defines itself through reference to an earlier literary culture, those of Greece and China. The juxtaposition of these two “latecomer” cultures makes immediate sense, but it is also clear that comparing them demands competences not easily found in a single individual. Denecke’s educational background (German "humanistisches Gymnasium") with Latin and Greek as her first foreign languages, her academic training in Ancient (Western) Philosophy, Sinology and Japanology, and her teaching posts in East Asian Studies have provided her with these competences, and she puts them to good use.

The introduction (p. 1-19) lays out Denecke’s understanding of the term "reference culture", her thoughts on the timeliness of intercultural comparison,1 and the principles and topics of her investigation. Chapter 1 (p. 20-61) articulates three similarities of Japanese and Roman literary culture that "encourage" comparison (p. 20) and three differences that "complicate" it (p. 32). Both literary cultures (1) were “latecomers”, they (2) developed against the backdrop of highly sophisticated “reference cultures” and, on the way, they (3) adopted and adapted the latter's educational canon. The differences between them have to do with (1) geopolitics (Rome conquers Greece; pre-modern Japan has no history of conquest), (2) their writing systems (alphabetic script vs. ideographic script), and (3) the literary genres and genre hierarchies developed by them (e.g. epic and drama vs. lyrical poetry at the top of the hierarchy).

Having thus set the stage, Denecke presents in the following seven chapters concrete "case studies devoted to particular questions and themes and explored through a highly selective set of examples from Japanese and Latin works" (p. 16). Chapter 2 investigates the ways in which Japanese and Roman authors reconstructed the origins of their literature, each in a way that allowed their own tradition, albeit derivative, to compete with its reference culture. Chapter 3 explores how “narratives of decline, and concepts of 'ornateness' and 'simplicity' helped writers [in both ‘latecomer' cultures’] to formulate their ambivalent stance toward the older reference culture" (p. 116). The next three chapters "revolve around the symbolic centres of the Roman and Japanese Empires" (p.16) and provide three comparisons: presentations of Prince Shotoku and of Aeneas as founding figures within a narrative of state formation (chapter 4), evocations of the capitals (Kyoto and Rome) as literary spaces (chapter 5), and the poetic reactions of two poets, Ovid and Sagawara no Michizane, who at the height of their lives were exiled from the capital to the fringes of empire (chapter 6). Finally, chapters 7 and 8 discuss "two particular modes through which younger cultures defined themselves in relation to their reference culture: satirical invectives against the older reference culture … and texts that juxtapose both cultures for comparative and contrastive effect" (p. 234).

Given the differences between these two literary cultures, it is natural that in none of these cases Denecke juxtaposes a Roman and a Japanese work in a simple, straightforward discussion. Instead she aims at "deep comparison," which is less concerned with individual works than with the comparison of whole "literary cultures" (p. 295) or, as I would put it, of literary works within the literary cultures to which they belong.

I give one example. In chapter 6 (p. 203-233) Denecke compares two famous exiled poets, Ovid and Sugawara no Michizane, and the ways in which they try to come to terms with their fate in their poetry. As it turns out, their reactions are different, and the differences have reasons. Denecke convincingly suggests that the most important of these reasons resides in the fact that the Japanese and Roman literary cultures had shaped Michizane’s and Ovid’s temperaments into different poetic personalities. In Japan, poetry was an important element of court life, often composed by men who held high positions in the bureaucracy. In Rome, political figures served as patrons of poetry but the poets were not politically engaged, living (as they tell us) for their poetry. One consequence of this was that, in Rome, prominent exiles were political figures and Ovid an exception, while in Japan (as in China) there was a long tradition of exiled poet- officials and Michizane only the most recent case. According to Denecke this difference in the social profiles of the two poets affected their reaction to exile: Michizane attributed his misfortune to an (abstract) dark fate that would eventually strike everyone, and he found consolation in belonging to an illustrious line of exiled poets; Ovid attributed his misfortune to Augustus and pleaded incessantly with the princeps – directly and indirectly – to reconsider his sentence. Another difference between Ovid's and Michizane's exile poetry concerns the "addressivity" (Bakhtin) of their poems: Ovid's exile poetry belongs to the genre of epistolary elegy, and it is thus directed to both implied (Tristia) and explicit (Epistulae) addressees whom the poet tries to persuade, by describing his plight, to work for his recall. Michizane's exile poetry is instead characterized by an "inward gaze" (p. 218): the poet rarely directs his poems to people but rather to passing geese or the plants in his garden back home in Kyoto. In a persuasive analysis, Denecke attributes this difference to the part played by public rhetoric and litigation in (Greco-)Roman culture on the one hand2 and a tradition of fictitious conversations with objects in the natural world that is characteristic of Chinese and Japanese poetry on the other. By analysing the ways these two exiled poets responded to their personal misfortunes, Denecke draws the reader’s attention to the broader character of these two literary cultures and some of their more distinct traits.

Some of the book's juxtapositions, all of which receive extensive commentary, may inevitably appear less felicitous. For example, I understand the rationale for comparing the mythic hero of Virgil's Aeneid, an epic narrative of roughly 10.000 lines, with the historical “hero” of the Abridged Biography of Prince Shotoku. Neverthless, "the two texts are radically different in scope, intended audience, and style" (p. 121), so one may wonder how meaningful the contrast between "City Building" and "Literacy"3 – the nub of Denecke’s interpretation – is for the characterisation of the two cultures, or how convincingly the analysis of two so fundamentally different texts can prove the significance of this contrast.4

But quibbles of this kind are less important in themselves than as indicators of a larger question: when one sees how difficult it is to find texts with recognisable parallels and how much intellectual work is required to establish a categorical framework for comparison, one may indeed ask if the enterprise does not have a degree of complexity that will make success impossible. Yet the pessimistic attitude implied in this question would be wrong. For Denecke's work shows that even if, at this stage, final overarching conclusions are not yet possible, a comparison of Japanese and Roman literary culture opens new perspectives on each and allows new insights into the general principles of intellectual history. For this the reader will be as grateful as for Denecke's stimulating theoretical reflections on intercultural comparison.5


1.   Cf. p. 11: " … the sense of a comparative imperative that has been imposing itself as the only means to keep intellectually sane in our ever more intertwined global world."
2.   This rhetorical tradition has no equivalent in Japanese culture.
3.   These are the titles of subsections 3 and 4 of chapter 4, which are obviously supposed to point to the main difference between Aeneas and Shotoku and their missions.
4.   The topic of literacy is alien to “Homeric” epic as genre, and therefore, in my opinion, the interpreter of Virgil’s Aeneid should not make too much of its absence. This holds also if one assumes that to compose an epic poem was a conscious choice on the part of the poet, since it is not likely that the absence of literacy was a decisive factor in this choice. On the whole, one might well ask whether e.g. Livy’s representation of the Roman kings in the first book of Ab urbe condita or Suetonius’ biography of Augustus would not serve as generically more suitable counterparts to the Abridged Biography of Prince Shotoku – though probably in these cases other problems would arise and complicate the issue.
5.   See especially the Epilogue.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010